INSIDE THE HEFTY HISTORY

Paul Watsky

book Nelson turns
forty, his disintegration quick-


marched by nautical com-
bat: eye ruined,


arm destroyed, splinter
wounds gifted


by cannonballs, the one
he imagines fatal


flapping his forehead
blindingly down. Our ad-


miral finds his visible
flesh mends sooner than


the post-concussive head-
aches, irritability, infat-


uation for that woman
to whom healthy, healthily


married officers merely
touched their hats


while sailing by. Nelson must
linger six-plus years,


hundreds of pages, for
the coveted, hardly


premature climactic
bullet to his cer-

vical spine, heroism’s
coolest apotheosis, only


available during exceptional
warfare and then only


to the super-abundantly en-
dowed. Close the volume.


Go to sleep.
Dream up something


intimately personal and
possible. Play


yourself as an inexperienced
contract psychologist with


the old-age home, ordered
to evaluate a dementing


female patient, and handed
this tiny attaché case


packed tight with
its totally foreign test


kit: numerous
undecipherable little game


boards, one, at least,
incomplete. I waken


every fifty minutes
to pee, then reengage


the bad phan-
tasmagoria of grinding


struggle, water shoaling
off the larboard bow,


over-costly victories,
the carelessness, decay

of human nature,
Zeno’s Corsican


arrow as yet as yet
a ways from Waterloo.

PROCESS

Can you tell us a little bit more about the historical moment you orient the reader in at the beginning of the poem, and what drew you to that event? 

I was in the middle of reading a book (not sure which one) on sea warfare during the Napoleonic period, and had reached where Nelson turned 40, shortly after he'd been promoted admiral and lost an arm in his first major venture at that rank, the disastrous attempted seizure of a port on the island of Tenerife. His superior, Admiral Jervis, who chose this objective, badly underestimated the Spanish, who were very competently led by Lieutenant General Antonio Gutiérrez de Otero y Santayana, nor was adequate intelligence gathered. The following year Nelson had one of his greatest successes, when he destroyed Napoleon's invasion fleet in Egypt, at the Battle of the Nile. Again, Nelson was wounded, a severe head trauma that probably caused a post-concussive syndrome affecting his mood and judgment. His scandalous infatuation with Emma Hamilton during this period of convalescence, could have resulted from a manic compensation for the depression commonplace with these cases. The theme seems to be that life exacts a toll from heroes, and Nelson's chosen path was extraordinarily dangerous.

I hope this isn't TMI.

Not at all.

 

Around the two-thirds mark of the poem, it becomes clear that this is not just a poem about Nelson, but also a poem about reading a book about Nelson: the reader "closes the volume" and falls into a fitful sleep in which he turns over scenes and figures and struggles from his own life. How much of that is autobiographical? If you're comfortable, we would love to hear about how that theme—that "life exacts a toll from heroes"—might have some parallels in your own experiences. 

The poem is literal psychologically, an accurate evocation of a restless night's dream and the bathroom trips that punctuated it. I've been resting better the past year, since my sleep apnea was identified and treated. Although my poem is factual in that I'd gone to sleep after putting aside the book on Nelson. The dream does confabulate. I’ve exclusively practiced as a Jungian analyst for the last three decades, and while shortly after licensure I spent a year employed half-time as a diagnostician, I've never worked in a geriatric facility, nor do I specialize in that area.


The assessment in the dream would likely require neuropsychological testing, a specialty at odds with my nature, because it's all about observing and measuring concrete details. So for me the assigned task, even without defective tools, would have been nightmarish. I can sympathize with Nelson, who over the course of his career had to endure galling frustration, especially from his superiors. I certainly also have experienced quixotically heroic impulses, and, I suppose, my fair share of grandiosity, but what that entailed for Nelson spoke loudly to the sadder and wiser part of me, well-schooled in opportunity costs.

We love hearing about how the personal intertwines (interferes?) with the poetic, and about the ways in which one's "day job" comes into the writing process. (Our contributors' professions are very wide-ranging!) Do you feel that your background in psychology and Jungian analysis informs your work often? We are curious if you have any reflections on how that training and process might apply to the act of writing poetry.

 

I've a very deep background in psychology, having been a depressed child who required years of psychotherapy to get my life on track. I think it taught me to inquire of others' often unconscious motivations, to scrutinize my own thoughts and emotions, to cue in on the words and tones with which individuals disclose or hide themselves. So that experience primed my interest in psychology as a profession. But during my high school years, while I was still in treatment, I got interested in poetry, majored in English as an undergraduate, and became a college instructor, coincidentally hired to teach the Jungian interpretation of literature, as well as modern poetry. After I was approved at the level of the dean of humanities for tenure and promotion to associate professor I was fired by the university president, a political conservative at war with his left-leaning faculty. I had just turned thirty, but decided to go back to school and switch careers.

 

My subjects are things that have impacted me personally, with which I hope people in turn will connect, as if in conversation. At a manuscript conference where I was workshopping my first collection I was told, in what sounded like a condescending way, that my stuff was "voice-driven." It had never occurred to me that might be a bad thing, and if it is I still don't understand how. I'm suspicious of poets who, like Pound, set up as prophets, expound universal systems, claim ex cathedra authority as philosophers, holy men/women, or politicians. What I respond to are verbal dexterity, musicality, the well rendered, emotionally alive image, and a good, plausible story. My preferred readers can be trusted to draw their own conclusions.